While Bill Gates’s 2020 summer reading list concentrated on the pandemic and its economic repercussions, the Microsoft founder opted for a “change of pace” in considering his recommendations for the holiday season. Some tackle tough topics, which serve to educate and inspire us to handle the current moment; others aim to take our minds off the doom and gloom of the coronavirus. Given that we have little choice these holidays but to stay indoors, get festive, and curl up by the fire, Gates offers this list of books to help us “finish the year on a good note.”
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein
Sports journalist David Epstein uses current and historical icons, from Roger Federer to Charles Darwin, to illustrate his thesis: that “generalists” are better served in work and innovation than the “hyper-specialized,” who may experience tunnel vision when they approach professional projects. We tend to think the opposite—that it’s important to dive deep into a single field—but Gates says this is a “myth-debunking book” that argues that the world needs more “people who start broad and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives.” It resonates with Gates (who considers himself curious in a range of subjects), and says he tried to hire many polymaths at Microsoft, which he believes contributed to the company’s success.
Larson’s book takes readers on a “fast-paced narrative” through the frightening years of 1940-1941 in England, when Londoners hunkered down underground during the nightly bombings of the Blitzkrieg, which killed almost 45,000 Brits. It “helps the reader feel what it’s like to live under aerial attack,” Gates says. But what’s so special about this particular account, Gates writes, are the “small, intimate details” that are often left out of Second-World-War biographies. Still, Churchill is the protagonist of the book, who Larson paints as the “number-one reason the British people persevered” during that tough time and “2020 qualifies as tough times,” too, Gates says, explaining that this book is very relevant to today, as we navigate quarantining and lockdowns.
The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander
Though it’s now 10 years old, Gates says The New Jim Crow remains an extremely relevant book, which he read to deepen his understanding of systemic racism in America, following the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and this summer’s protests. It informs readers on the cycle of mass incarceration, and the creation of a “permanent underclass” of Black and low-income citizens. Gates writes that Alexander has a knack for explaining historical context so well that he hopes she’ll write a follow-up about how the growing Black Lives Matter movement has affected her thesis. “I am eager to hear her thoughts on how this year might have moved us closer to a more equal society,” he writes.
This Cold War-era espionage thriller is nonfiction, but Gates writes that is “every bit as exciting as my favorite spy novels.” It’s 1983, and tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union are at risk of spilling over into nuclear war—if not for the bravery of Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB spy-turned-double agent who ended up helping the Americans. The gripping narrative aside, Gates says this book boils down to a “remarkable profile in courage” of the informant, who was at severe risk of arrest and death if the Soviets were ever to find out about his treachery.
Gates’s final choice tells of the multifaceted approach to tackling cystic fibrosis, a grave genetic disease that attacks the lungs. He prefaces the recommendation with a disclaimer that it’s “not for everyone,” given its long and detailed format. But it personally resonates for Gates because of his contribution to drug trials to fight cystic fibrosis during the early years of his philanthropic efforts, when he was approached by a Microsoft employee whose young sons both suffered from the disease. The book focuses on the many heroes of the medical breakthrough, including families, advocates, researchers, doctors, and physiotherapists. “It’s an inspiring book,” he writes. “I know there will be more success stories like this in the coming years.”